Thursday, Jan. 31, 2008

Council chairman wins Senate seat by one vote

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Prince George’s County Council Chairman David C. Harrington defeated former state delegate Rushern Baker by one vote Wednesday in a contentious battle to determine who would succeed the late state Sen. Gwendolyn T. Britt.

‘‘I come with a reverence to serve and a passion to act,” said Harrington, who prevailed after a three-hour meeting in which the Democratic Central Committee interviewed candidates before voting in his favor 12 to 11.

Terry Speigner, chairman of the central committee, cast the tie-breaking vote. He declined to explain the reason for his decision.

Gov. Martin O’Malley must now appoint Harrington to the District 47 Senate seat, according to the Maryland Constitution. Harrington will be allowed to serve through the rest of Britt’s term, which ends in 2010. Britt, 66, died Jan. 12 of apparent heart failure.

The 47th district hooks around the western edge of the county from Adelphi to Cheverly to Landover.

Other candidates included fellow district Dels. Jolene Ivey and Victor R. Ramirez, county substitute teacher Kenniss Odetta Henry and Travis Britt, the late senator’s husband.

Britt, Henry and Ramirez withdrew their names from consideration early in the meeting, with Britt citing the vicious politics – he claimed backroom deals and mudslinging were rampant – for the succession race.

‘‘These demons are after me, but I’m going to dispel these evil spirits. I am withdrawing,” Britt said to the crowd, who gave him a standing ovation.

Ivey received no votes from committee members.

Supporters for Harrington, a former Bladensburg mayor and ally of County Executive Jack B. Johnson, outnumbered those of the other candidates at the meeting and included state Sen. Nathaniel Exum (D-Dist. 24) of Capitol Heights.

‘‘I believe in what [Harrington] calls ‘community first,’” Exum said. ‘‘He would bring to us and give to us the very best.”

Johnson attended the meeting but did not speak in support of anyone. He cheered when Harrington was selected.

Baker, who had served in the House of Delegates for eight years, offered himself as a pragmatic choice to put an experienced representative in the seat.

‘‘You have a duty to put the best person that you can to make sure that Prince George’s County is well-represented and that we can bring home our fair share.”

Both Harrington and Baker had strikes against them with the political committee. Baker, having lost twice to Johnson for county executive, would not rule out another run at the top county office in 2010 when committee members questioned him.

‘‘Longevity matters less,” he told members. ‘‘It’s the quality of the person you send there.”

Harrington faced tough questions about his record from the group, including his support for Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, a Republican, in the 2006 U.S. Senate race, and his involvement on the County Council that helped scuttle a proposed state bailout to the county hospital system last year.

‘‘Why do you believe that the Prince George’s County Democratic Central Committee would put forward the name of an individual who endorsed a Republican in the U.S. Senate contest?” asked Committee Member Micah Watson.

‘‘I’m a Democrat. I want what’s best for my party,” said Harrington, who said he supported Steele, a black candidate, for what he promised bring to the majority-black county.

‘‘I also think Maryland should do better ... we owe it to the voters in this state never to be ignored,” he said. ‘‘We owe it to this state that Prince George’s should not be ignored.”

Harrington said he had concerns about the county’s share of costs for the hospital deal but said he did not oppose the proposal to have the state and county pay to create an independent authority to run the hospital.

‘‘We didn’t take any votes or any actions,” he said. ‘‘We asked the questions. And when we asked the question, the discussion was then going [everywhere].”

In contrast to Baker, Harrington also pledged to run for the Senate seat again in 2010.

He may face some competition. Ramirez said he would run for the spot as well in two years.

‘‘It’s a very long district. God knows, I’ve walked it twice, knocking on doors,” he told the crowd. ‘‘But I’m going to ask for this seat the way I should. I’m going to come to you for your vote.”

Harrington’s appointment will create a vacancy on the County Council. It is likely that Vice Chairwoman Marilynn M. Bland (D-Dist. 9) of Clinton will take over the lead until a formal decision is made, council sources said.

A special election will be held to fill Harrington’s Dist. 5 council seat.

E-mail Daniel Valentine at dvalentine@gazette.net.